New Elizabethan Age

With the accession of the new Queen, it was inevitable that comparisons should be made with the other period when the English sovereign was named Elizabeth. Following the period of mourning for the late King, the Press has played heavily on the theme of the possibility of a second “golden age” under the second Elizabeth. Popular illustrated periodicals have shown, alongside pictures of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Drake, Cecil and Bacon, photographs of the writers, politicians, film actors and racing motorists who are the leading figures at the outset of the new Elizabethan era. Particular emphasis has been laid on literature because, in the last two decades of the sixteenth century, there were more outstanding figures in this field than probably at any other time in its history.

The views of an eminent historian on this matter are obviously of special interest and Mr. A. L Rowse is one of the foremost of present-day historians. In his Presidential address to the English Association, given at the Association’s luncheon in May and now published by the Oxford University Press, Mr. Rowse’s topic was: “A Second Elizabethan Age?” The address was widely reported, and the Prime Minister requested a copy of it; Conservatives in particular were pleased by its emphasis on individual enterprise as a feature of the earlier Elizabethan age.

Certainly the picture is an appealing one. A young queen with a long reign before her; hopes, stimulated by the 1951 Festival, for a revival of the arts in Britain; an age in which the development of science offers seemingly unlimited possibilities; all these have given many people reason for hope that the second “age of Elizabeth” will be an age of prosperity and happiness. We should like to examine this possibility, and propose doing so with reference to Mr. Rowse’s arguments on the subject.

Mr. Rowse looks upon the earlier Elizabethan age with unqualified approval. He sees it as an era full of vitality and opportunity. “What it must have been to be alive—and sentient—in those years: of that we can have no conception,” he says. Ability was valued and fostered; there was none who did not feel the spur of ambition, and achievement did not go unrewarded: “society was alive and bursting with energy,” the age was “the greatest glory of our state and tongue.” He points to the opportunities for advancement: “And there was freedom in that society to move up—or down; careers were open to talents and hard work. Look at the starting-point of so many of the figures of that age: Shakespeare, the son of a small townsman, butcher and dealer in wool and skins; Ben Jonson, stepson’ of a bricklayer; Marlowe, a cobbler’s son; Spenser, a poor scholar maintained by the Merchant Taylors; Drayton, a page-boy in a country house; Hooker, another poor scholar maintained by a bishop; and look at the fantastic fortune of Drake, a needy vicar’s son who was not even schooled—he carved his way for himself.”

This vigorous and exciting condition of society is compared with that of the present time. The arts to-day are in an unhedthy state—there is much criticism, but little creation; “the standardized products of a mass-civilization, a herd society” cannot be compared with the proud craftsmanship of those Elizabethans; our age “has no standards’’; political criticism —“particularly from the Left intellectuals”—has done almost irreparable damage; in “a more or less one-class society, levelled down to the standards of the trivial insignificant average,” it is well-nigh impossible for ability to flower.

These are the premises on which Mr. Rowse builds his conclusions; let us examine them first. Was the age of Elizabeth the First really so golden?

It was an era of social change. The Reformation had broken the power of the Catholic Church. The enclosure of land was driving the workers into the towns. The nation-state was coming into its own as the dominant type of political organisation. Underlying these developments were great economic changes. The rule of the old feudal aristocracy had been successfully challenged by the new merchant class, and the steadily expanding demand for goods could only be satisfied by capitalist methods of manufacture. Great metal works were springing up; the first deep coal mines being sunk; cloth manufacture was becoming highly organized; government shipyards and armament plants were established. The competition between nations for trading routes had led to the world’s suddenly becoming larger, and great hordes of precious metals were discovered in the New World. Science, stimulated by the need to solve technical problems, developed and influenced men’s minds powerfully. And the Renaissance, the “rebirth” of learning, had opened the storehouse of the knowledge and artistic achievements of the ancient world.

Mr. Rowse is, of course, aware of all this. Indeed, he says: “The situation of the country and the nature of our society predisposed to the flowering of mind and energy that made the age what it was.” It is therefore surprising that he should so strongly blame the people and institutions of the present-age for failing to “flower” as did their ancestors. The first Elizabethan age was at the beginning of capitalism, and the rising capitalist class was a young, virile, and, in fact, a revolutionary class whose historic mission was the development of economic, technical and intellectual resources. To-day, when capitalism has outlived its usefulness to society, it is hardly to be expected t\ t it should be “alive and bursting with energy.”

That is not the whole story, however. The impression given by Mr. Rowse is that Elizabethan society was a paradise for all, rich and poor alike. The incorrectness of this is amply demonstrated by the famous Act 43 of Elizabeth—the 1601 Poor Law. Thorold Rogers says: “In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the labourer secured increased wages in the midst of decreasing prices. In the sixteenth, the reverse which he suffered was far more considerable than the advantage which his forefathers had gained . . . 1 cannot but think that a growing disaffection, which Elizabeth and her counsellors were not slow to discern, the remedy for which seemed to be the continuance of expedients adopted in the three previous reigns, was the cause which induced them and parliament to acquiesce in the Act of 1601.” In fact, the age of Elizabeth was also the age of vagrancy and pauperism. The disbanding of the little feudal armies, the loss of the monastic charities, and—most of all—the enclosure of land, filled England with vagrants and robbers whose homelessness and desperation made them a danger. The 1601 Poor Law made pauperism a recognised institution; that the Act was the outcome of fear rather than sympathy is shown by its provision that “lusty and valiant beggars” were to be “grievously whipped and burned, through the gristle of the right ear.” Holinshed, too, gives a vivid picture of the brutal severity with which this menace to social order was kept in check.

Further light on the real condition of society in Elizabeth’s England may be obtained from the literature of the time. There are several writers, eminent in their day, who are not mentioned by Mr. Rowse: Robert Greene, for example, Thomas Harman, John Awdely, and many others: Greene was a dramatist and prose-writer, but he was also the first writer of “spiv” literature. He and the others mentioned thrived from the sale of voluminous pamphlets exposing the tricks and malpractices of London’s numerous “coney-catchers,” the members of the vast workless horde who lived by their wits. We find, therefore, that the “spiv,” the figure who perhaps more than any other symptomises the working-class’s disillusionment, was proportionately as numerous in Elizabethan London as in the 1940’s.

It can be said, therefore, that the goldenness of this “golden age” was felt by only a minority of the people who lived in it. Mr. Rowse claims that there was freedom for talented and hard-working people to rise from the ranks of the poor, and quotes several examples. It could be suggested that not all of these examples are what they seem—that Shakespeare’s father, for instance, was quite a well-to-do man. The important point, however, is that throughout the centuries when capitalism was developing, it was always possible for a small number of people to become wealthy in spite of humble beginnings. Further examples can be found in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That it is not possible to-day is due to the fact that capitalism has exhausted virtually all its potentialities for creative achievement; Mr. E. M. Forster recently, in a radio talk, remarked that it is no longer possible for a man to become very wealthy by honest means.

Mr. Rowse laments that our age has no standards. Had the Elizabethan age better ones? The careers of Drake (for whom Mr. Rowse expresses great admiration) and his fellow “sea-dogs” were ones of robbery with violence, justified and made romantic by the Elizabethan rulers’ lust for gold, silver and trade routes. Elizabethan politics was a succession of Machiavellian intrigues and plots. The poor were treated with open cruelty. How much evidence is there in these things of the existence of superior standards? The truth is that moral standards and Christian virtues are not practicable under the system which causes them to be preached. Just as the ideal of brotherhood is meaningless in the present-day slaughter-house world, in Elizabethan England there could be no standards when—to quote Mr. Rowse—“everybody scrambled and jostled and climbed and pushed their way to the front.”

In view of all this, one cannot help but ask: “Who wants another Elizabethan age, anyway?” The answer is nobody except members of the capitalist class, with whose interests Mr. Rowse, we now see, is wholly preoccupied. The period 1558 to 1603 was one of poverty for the many and prosperity for only the few, of ruthless oppression and barbaric practices.

But what of the arts? Is it not true that this was an age in which they flourished as never before or since? Certainly the list of names is imposing: Shakespeare, Lyly, Sidney, Marlowe, Jonson, Spenser, Nash, Greene, Lodge, Webster, and ever so many more. Mr. Rowse’s case is that these men were essentially creative, and the Elizabethan age gave them scope for their creativeness. To-day, the emphasis is wrongly on criticism, the antithesis of creation. “ Was there ever,” he asks, “ a more apposite instance than Shakespeare, the “ child of nature,” as against the academics and the intellectuals? ”

Certainly, it is true that the Elizabethan age had plenty to stimulate artists in general and dramatists and poets in particular. It was a period full of new, different and exciting things. The language had left behind all its teething troubles. The invention and development of printing had brought a reading public into being. The growth of towns and release from the former ties with Church and craft guilds enabled the theatre to become, for the first time in English history, a settled institution. There were wealthy men ready to become patrons. And there were the histories, the learning and style given by the Renaissance.

Concerning Mr. Rowse’s remarks about creativeness and criticism, however, there are two or three things to be said. The first is that even the most gifted “child of nature” is ineffective unless society has a place for his gifts. One cannot imagine Virgil making his mark as a poet in the age of Beowulf or Ezra Pound receiving acclamation in the days of Dr. Johnson. The creative talents of Shakespeare, Marlowe and the rest were of a nature that was acceptable to their contemporaries. To lament the lack of creativeness in the present age is, therefore, to put the cart before the horse; rather should Mr. Rowse lament that society does not to-day find a very prominent place for the type of ability which he admires. Second, one must call into question the assumption that the works of these poets and dramatists were the product of a concern with creation only. Catherine Ing, in her recent book “Elizabethan Lyrics,” calls this into question and gives good reason for the counter-belief that they were, in fact, very conscious of the same questions of form and style that preoccupy the present-day writer. There is ample evidence in Shakespeare’s own work that he was well aware of the circumstances which favoured his genius; Mr. Edwin Muir, in “The Politics of ‘King Lear’ “; sees “Lear” as nothing less than a dramatic representation of the struggle between the aged and dying forces of feudalism and the ruthless, inevitably victorious ones of the new order.

Mr. Rowse’s conclusion is that, while there may not be much reason, there is hope for improvement in society in the reign of the second Elizabeth. He sees hope in the fact that “the degeneration attendant upon mass-civilisation has gone less far here than elsewhere ”; in the quality of British scientists; and in the possibility that, as the younger English-speaking nations become of increasing importance in the world, the prestige of England will increase. Finally, he finds hope in the thought that: “. . . human genius is unquenchable—there is no knowing what it will do next; civilization is itself a tough plant—it springs up anywhere, like stinging-nettles among the ruins, or willow-herb flowering inextinguishably on the bomb-sites of London.”

In short, Mr. Rowse considers that society has come to a bad pass. There could be nothing better than a return to the conditions and spirit of the Elizabethan era, and, though the circumstances of the present day do not seem propitious, there is ground for hoping that this may come to pass. The situation at the beginning of the first Elizabeth’s reign appeared black, but with good fortune and good statesmanship Elizabeth and her advisers “nursed the country out of its sickness ”; the same may yet happen again.

Thus the possibility, in Mr. Rowse’s view, is envisaged in terms of hope rather than of any reasonable expectation. We are unable to see any hope at all while the capitalist system remains with us—and Mr. Rowse’s wish, of course, is that it shall do so. The loss of vitality and creative energy in this age is the result, not of the carpings of “Left intellectuals” or the lowering of any hypothetical standards, but of the stage which capitalism has reached; a stage in which it has nothing further to offer to the development of society. The hindrance to man’s free development, in the arts and in every other sphere, is not any trend within capitalism but is capitalism itself. Thus we cannot see the second Elizabethan age offering anything but what was offered under previous sovereignties, except that the same things will probably be somewhat worse.

There is, however, a social era to come that has everything to offer to every man, woman and child: the socialist age, which does not have any parallel in past history. The time of its coming does not depend upon any individuals, politicians or sovereigns, but on the mass of the people; they will bring it into being when they realise that, under capitalism, there is no prospect of a “golden age” or of any age other than a continuous one of war and want. There will be free seats for all to participate in its coming.


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